Talking tech: Interview: Harry Dougall Co-founder, Sagacity and bubbleHUB
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We spoke to Harry Dougall about how tech’s adaptable nature has helped businesses pivot during COVID-19, and how he envisions the future of the corporate office…
The unprecedented global pandemic has starkly illuminated the need for businesses to adapt to change. Harry Dougall, CFO and Founding Partner of two businesses - Sagacity and bubbleHUB – has the unique perspective of overseeing two businesses with very different experiences of the COVID-19 fallout.
Sagacity bills itself as “not just a data company”, offering everything from data management to revenue assurance, value-based management to analytics, credit risk and more. While Sagacity deals with the cloud, bubbleHUB deals with the real world, offering a co-working space in St. Albans for those looking for a working refuge close to – but not in – the bustle of London.
We spoke to Harry about how tech is particularly adapted to pivoting when needed, and what the future of corporate offices might look like.
How has Sagacity’s technological background made it adaptable?
Myself and my two co-founders started Sagacity as a consultancy in 2005 but now, it's a very different business. We have pivoted with the market over the years, and we're now in a space where we're categorised as a data analytics business. We've got our own proprietary range of software products, and though we still offer consultancy services, we altered our focus to make our services into products.
To do so, we built software platforms that did a lot of that work for us; a lot of our progress was helped by the growth of cloud solutions. We didn't need to have big server rooms or other infrastructure, which helped us to quickly change our focus.
Industry: Information Technology & Services
Ownership: Privately Held
Size: 51-200 employees
Sub-sector: Data Analytics
Did that help during the current crisis?
When the pandemic hit, we were able to weather the storm fairly well, because we’ve learned to be flexible. As we've always had to work remotely, due to our work on client sites, we were lucky to be able to hit the ground running when the situation changed. Lots of our solutions are all cloud-based - even our own infrastructure – from basic IT infrastructure to our data stored on Amazon Web Service and Azure. This meant that we could start to work from home. None of our staff have been back into the office since lockdown occurred.
Of course, no company has gone unscathed during this time - we have been impacted in that we’ve had to work with our clients differently because there was a point of instability for them.
However, the software, products and services that we offer are designed to help clients reduce bad debt and improve collections performance. That’s the aim of our customer data solution platform. We improve margin, which forms the revenue assurance side of our business, and then we optimise value, which is the value-based management side of the business. These business changes are even more in demand than before COVID-19 became an issue.
We're also fortunate to be working in sectors that have been less affected than the retail and airline sectors: telecoms, water, energy and financial services.
"Those industries need our services more than ever, which is partly why I think Sagacity has been reasonably resilient."
Is there a lot of competition for tech businesses such as Sagacity?
Being based in London is a double-edged sword in terms of competition. The main problem is finding the right employees - there’s a great talent pool and you can attract the staff, but retaining the staff is where the challenge lies. There's a lot of movement across our industry and geography, probably more movement than there is in other regions. We're always looking for very multi-faceted people in a similar type of company to ours, and obviously other companies do the same. We’ve thankfully managed to find hires who are skilled technical talent, able to go on the client site and also great at working in a team, because no one at Sagacity works on their own. We always work in teams.
I think the way we’ve managed to tackle this issue is to give our staff interesting work and give them responsibility and accountability. By showing them the path of where they can get to and what they can do from an accountability perspective, they find fulfilment and want to stay. If I take the average tenure of our management team, for example, it's over 11 years. We’ve had success with that approach.
How has the current global situation affected BubbleHUB, and what does it mean for the future of the business?
When I created bubbleHUB with my friend and co-founder Benn Latham, we really evaluated the need at the time for office space that was different and flexible. Office space is still quite traditional - if you want flexible working or co-working, you have to be in one of the big cities. We felt smaller areas weren’t as catered for, or seen as an afterthought.
What we set out to do is to provide something of the London quality of office, where there’s no compromise, but bring it outside of London. BubbleHUB offers pure flexibility.
Now that COVID-19 has happened, I actually believe that these sorts of spaces are more necessary than ever. The one good thing to come of this pandemic I think, is that it has accelerated the use of technology that was already available to start with. More people can work remotely, because tweaks and allowances have been made. Myself and many others have been using Microsoft Teams and Zoom for years, but now it’s commonplace and accepted.
Because of this situation, flexible and remote working options have become higher demand.
"The days when we travel to work for an hour or more and sit at a desk in the same place every day may well be over."
Though that might mean that working from home might be more accepted, we still do need that human element to our working lives. You can’t necessarily get that from all the collaboration tools we use, but it doesn’t seem sensible to travel so far to the office. That’s where co-working spaces such as bubbleHUB are likely to come in for the future.
Offering a stylish, creative, comfortable, well-lit space, full of like-minded people, allows our clients to focus on their work and create a division between home life and work. They get the benefit of enjoying all the joys of no commute, but they’re still making connections.
What will the future of offices look like post-COVID?
For the immediate term, we have all got to adapt the office space for our new needs. In bubbleHUB, we've got the two metres rule in place, we've put screens up, and made all the other necessary arrangements to make everyone safe. But after this present situation, I think this style of working will be our future, because I don't think it's healthy to work at home all the time without your peers to spur you on, and I don’t think everyone will want to return to office-based working full time.
I think the key change will be when co-working and shared office space starts to co-exist with traditional offices, rather than competing. I think that’s where co-working went wrong before – trying to compete doesn’t work, but offering flexibility and the ability to change contracts as needed when unexpected situations such as this arrive will become incredibly valuable in future.
What advice do you have for other founders looking to start their own business?
From a Sagacity perspective, we brought in some non-exec advisors after a few years - if I was doing it again, I would bring that advice in a lot earlier. I think having people around you from the industries you're working in acting as advisors to your business is just game-changing.
I would definitely advise any person who's about to start a business, or is in the early stages, to get that different view. It provides a challenge to how you're running the business, but also it helps with your messaging to the industries you're working in, because you're talking in their language. I think lots of businesses have got great ideas, but getting their point across through their messaging is tricky. From a bubbleHUB perspective, I think having your own space in which to create and run your business – whether in a traditional office or in a co-working space - that isn’t based in your home gives you confidence. Not only that, it helps you make vital connections. We've got a lot of creatives in bubbleHUB, and a lot of entrepreneurs, but we also have corporates. By having those conversations that you can have with a wide range of people, you see a tangible benefit to your business, because they expand your network further.
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